The first time Cynthia Erivo met with playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to discuss an Aretha Franklin project, they were joined by an unexpected guest.
Shortly after the award-winning performer Erivo took her seat, the restaurant started piping in "Day Dreaming," written and performed by the Queen of Soul herself.
"I sat down and it started playing and it was like, 'OK. Someone's in the room,' " Erivo said during a virtual news conference. "That was the first time I had thought to myself, 'Yes, this is the right thing to do.' Because there was no reason for that song to play."
Well, no reason other than Franklin's stature as one of the most popular artists of all time, with 18 Grammys and the honor of being the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2010, Rolling Stone named her the greatest singer of all time.
Despite all of these accolades, the four-night miniseries "Genius: Aretha," premiering Sunday on National Geographic Channel, has the lofty goal of raising the R-E-S-P-E-C-T even higher.
In addition, a biopic starring Jennifer Hudson is expected to hit theaters in August.
"What makes me really happy is that the Queen of Soul is getting all this attention. She deserves it and more," said showrunner Parks, best known for the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Topdog/Underdog."
"We're good friends with the folks making the film, and we don't see it as competition. It's time for the Queen to have a huge, huge party, and we're going be part of that."
The upcoming feature film may boast the Oscar-winning Hudson, but Erivo is no slouch, either.
Her talents, which have already earned her a Tony, a Grammy, a Daytime Emmy and two Oscar nominations, are put to good use. Her versatile singing voice is on display through all eight episodes, from assembling "I Never Loved a Man" at a studio in Alabama's Muscle Shoals to entertaining a rabid concert crowd with "Satisfaction."
"I guess a lot of my voice comes from her because I've been listening to her for such a long time," said Erivo, who performed live on set as much as she could. "She has definitely had years on me in her experience with her voice. And I'm still learning mine. I don't think I'm ever not going to be a pupil when it comes to music and singing and vocalizing."
Erivo may consider herself a student, but it didn't come across that way to executive producer Anthony Hemingway.
"If you close your eyes and just listen to her sing, you are questioning, 'Is Aretha in that booth, or is it Cynthia Erivo?' " said Hemingway, who also directed the first episode. "But that's the beauty in what I love seeing a real actor do. They step out of themselves and really step into the shoes of the character that they are portraying. Cynthia is doing that. She's knocking it out of the park."
In addition to more than a dozen full numbers from Erivo, the miniseries features dynamic performances from actors channeling other legends including Dinah Washington, Clara Ward and Lena Horne.
"It's a show that just exudes from its bones, spilling out music," Parks said. "Music, music, music, music."
Keeping pace with her elders is Shaian Jordan, a 14-year-old newcomer who plays young Franklin in flashbacks. Her version of "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" in front of a packed congregation wowed co-star Courtney B. Vance, who plays Aretha's father C.L. Franklin, the influential minister whose ego collided with the mission to champion his daughter.
"I've never seen someone come into a church of 1,500 people and have to get up there and lead the charge," said the Emmy- and Tony-winning Vance. "We're all watching, knowing how frightened she is, and she mastered the moment. Because of her, the courage of the whole church lifted."
In those childhood performances, young Franklin beams with the kind of exuberance kids usually save for Christmas morning.
Those smiles have vanished by the time Erivo takes over the role.
As the film constantly reminds us, Franklin grew up with good reason to distrust those around her. She had given birth twice before she turned 15. Her mother died at a young age. Dad was a philanderer.
As an adult, Franklin would upstage her older sister Erma, robbing her of her chance in the spotlight. When she meets Atlantic Records executive Jerry Wexler, played by comedian David Cross, she gives him a stern glare when he dares to call her Aretha rather than Miss Franklin.
"Genius" executive musical producer Raphael Saadiq knows the power of that look all too well.
He recalled approaching Franklin at the Grammy Awards, touching her on the arm while paying his respects.
"She just looked at me and didn't say nothing, right? So I walked away," said Saadiq, who rose to fame as a member of Tony! Toni! Toné! "Her kids just looked at her and said, 'No, he can actually play music for real.' So then she waved at me."
But Franklin didn't only use her powers to intimidate others. The miniseries makes sure to point out Franklin's role in fighting sexism and racism, insisting that she be recognized as an album producer, a credit few artists were granted in the early 1970s.
"Aretha was one of those brave Black women pioneers," Parks said. "She worked with Dr. King when it was perhaps less than fashionable. She wasn't the only one, but she was one of the foremothers in that movement, with celebrities using their creative capital for social justice. She also aligned herself with [activist] Angela Davis when that wasn't really a cool thing to do. That's a component that I wanted to feature in Aretha's life."
It's also a reason Franklin's story belongs in National Geographic's "Genius" franchise. The project, which comes from Ron Howard's production company, previously heralded Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso. A series on Martin Luther King is in the works.
"She's not just the awesome sister who sang brilliantly and played piano gorgeously," Parks said. "Genius just isn't someone who has a special talent. Genius is someone who brings people together. She did that throughout her life."
@NealJustin • 612-673-7431
When: 8 p.m. Sun.-Wed.
Where: National Geographic Channel. Episodes available each following day on Hulu.